The 49ers know they’re going to the playoffs for a second straight season, but much is riding on Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.
If the 10-4-1 Niners beat the 5-10 Cardinals, they’ll clinch the NFC West championship. They’ll also win the division if the Seahawks lose to the Rams.
If the 49ers lose and the Seahawks win, San Francisco will be a wild-card team and play on the road on the first playoff weekend.
In order to earn a first-round bye, the 49ers will need to win Sunday and have the Packers lose to the Vikings.
As far as head coach Jim Harbaugh is concerned, the 49ers need to come up with a win this Sunday to shake off their lopsided loss in Seattle last week and put themselves back into good position and a good frame of mind.
“Yeah, it’s something that definitely we want to do,” Harbaugh told reporters this week about the need to regain some momentum. “That’s a main objective to play for the Western Division championship this week, and then also (get) a running start into the big championship. I think that’s important.”
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 16½-point favorites.
Though the 49ers will be without Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith, who’s still recovering from an elbow injury, and wide receiver Mario Manningham, now out for the season with a knee injury, the team did get some good news Thursday. Tight end Vernon Davis, who suffered a concussion vs. Seattle, was cleared to practice and was on the field with his teammates Thursday, and appears to be on track to play Sunday.
“I’m managing, and I’m taking it one day at a time,” Davis told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
The Cardinals present a good chance for San Francisco to rebound, after playing the NFL’s hottest team (Seattle) last week and one of its best (New England) the week before.
In their previous meeting this season (with Alex Smith the starter at quarterback), San Francisco won 24-3. The Cardinals, who have lost 10 of their past 11 games, will start Brian Hoyer at quarterback, their fourth starter this season at the position. The former Patriots backup, in his fourth NFL season out of Michigan State, has thrown just 62 career passes, completing 38. This year, he’s 11-of-19 for 105 yards, no TDs and one interception.
Sunday’s game will be a chance for the 49ers defense to regroup. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted this week, since the injury to Justin Smith in the victory over the Patriots, the Niners’ defense has been porous. Over the past six quarters, Branch reports, the 49ers have given up 48 first downs, 753 yards and 66 points.
If the Niners can close some of those holes and take the pressure off quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the offense, it could go a long way toward San Francisco clinching the NFC West title.